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Should Higher Education Ratify Privilege or Public Service?


Marshall Steinbaum (@Econ_Marshall) is Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Utah.

This post is part of a series on the LPE of Higher Education.


Colleges are now battlefields, at least in the fever dreams of finance and tech billionaires, New York Times columnists, class-anxious parents in upscale suburbs, and boards of trustees troubled by student activists and inconveniently outspoken professors. At one level, the stateside culture wars over Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza, DEI programs and gender nonconformity, and student debt cancellation all seem like distractions from the real problems facing higher education. However, I have come to believe that they all tell us something important about the purpose of higher education, because they all concern the central questions of hierarchy and its reproduction.

The Palo Alto System

Conflict over higher education arises from everyone’s certainty that the present system is failing in its two-fold mission, to legitimate the existing social order in a static sense and to reproduce that order in a dynamic one. The idea of meritocracy is core to both functions, and the real debate about higher ed is downstream from two sets of beliefs about merit. The first holds that the existing social order is basically a meritocracy, and as it becomes more unequal, that merely reflects a finer sorting. The second seeks to remake the social order to reflect qualities and achievements of individuals during their own lifetime, rather than accept that talent and genuine service to the public be swamped by inheritance, privilege, and connections.

Adherents to the first view see higher ed’s job as reproducing and facilitating that sorting, by admitting a student body optimized for future earnings and propelling them into the associated careers and marriages (and shepherding them away from fields or disciplines that might stand in the way of the children of privilege assuming their rightful place). This is what Malcolm Harris tellingly refers to as the Palo Alto System in his eponymous book, but spread outward to higher education and especially elite higher education as a whole. That vision of what higher education exists to do is also at the heart of the perceived threat from gender nonconformity evinced in the New York Times’s crusade against trans acceptance, channeling the anxieties of a certain portion of their readership: in an environment of diminished birthrates overall and anxiety on the part of upscale white liberals of the Great Replacement, the idea that their own children might be seduced away from reproduction while in college seems like another nail in the coffin of the existing social order (and conveniently ignores the real causes of declining fertility—high costs of education, childcare, and housing—addressing which would threaten their wealth and social status.)

Proponents of this first view (of higher education as an elite sorting mechanism) favor the admission of a handful of less advantaged students, if only because they know that a literal 100% legacy admissions policy would defeat the university’s ability to function as a badge of deservingness in the eyes of the public they seek to impress. The presence of such students helps obscure that the purpose of the process is to justify the transmission of inter-generational privilege as deserved. (This helps explain the response from administrators at elite universities to the Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action, which had a telling flavor of “don’t you realize this policy keeps the whole house of cards standing?”). Nevertheless, it is a delicate balance, as doling out scarce seats on a basis other than optimizing for future earnings, or what the economists who study higher ed have re-termed institutional “success,” risks muddying the waters of hierarchy reproduction. Indeed, one indisputable fact about defining success as future earnings, given what we know about the true determinants thereof, is that it implies the optimal admissions policy is the one that ranks all applicants in order of their parents’ wealth, admits however many from the top of the list there’s room for, and distributes financial aid in whatever amount is necessary to secure their enrollment.

The special horror that many of the exponents of this view of meritocracy have for affirmative action (over the protests of elite university administration) can thus be tied to another retrograde intellectual trend: the return of eugenics to widespread consensus status among elites, as the model of human capital (i.e., skills acquired during the course of one’s own lifetime that incur remuneration in the labor market) is increasingly inadequate to explain observed disparities, which in reality start at, or indeed before, birth, because such disparities are tied to the inheritance of both wealth and privilege. This is why, for instance, they are particularly aggrieved by the idea that a reasonably smart, high-test-scoring kid from a wealthy northeastern suburb, whose admission to an Ivy-plus school was once a lay-up, might have their spot taken by a non-white applicant admitted due to political correctness or fear of racial justice activists. There’s a reason for racial inequality, so this narrative goes, and if colleges are too deluded or scared to perpetuate it in their admissions policies, they need to be reined in by the fearless Bill Ackmans and Marc Rowans of the world, and the kind of administrator who will do their bidding.

This is also why the Supreme Court’s ruling against affirmative action in 2023 poses no systematic threat to legacy admissions, even if some institutions have chosen to drop them, at least as an official policy. The idea that it would betrays a fundamentally liberal conception of college admissions: that it is a ranking of deservingness, which incorporates various “exceptions” to merit, based on larger societal or institutional goals. On this reading, we have affirmative action to address racial injustice, even if that means sacrificing a strictly merit-based ranking. If we’re going to do away with affirmative action, then, we had better also get rid of the plainly unjust exception to merit-based admissions in the form of legacy preferences. To make that claim fundamentally misunderstands how the “other side” conceives of merit. Preferences for legacies make it more likely that your admissions policy selects for “success” (understood as future earnings), so maintaining or even expanding legacy preferences while killing off affirmative action makes an admissions policy unambiguously more meritocratic. Moreover, by conceding the claim that affirmative action constitutes the subordination of merit to some other goal, liberals have, as usual, surrendered in advance.

It was telling that when the New York Times covered the shifting philanthropic focus to Zionism in the aftermath of October 7th, one effort that lost out was Ronald Lauder’s funding for standardized test prep for Black and Latino students taking the entrance exam for New York City’s selective-admissions high schools. Defending the tests themselves in the face of racial justice activists demanding they be discontinued remains a cause célèbre for billionaire meritocrats, but since the one initiative they deem acceptable for increasing the representation of Black and Latino students at those schools hasn’t worked (targeted test prep), they draw the conclusion that those students must not deserve to be admitted. Better to keep the schools segregated than try anything else.

The Hollowing Out of Higher Ed

The alternative, and more compelling view, of course, is that the very fact of prolonged and worsening segregation demonstrates that higher education is not a meritocracy. To make it one would require tearing down the exclusionary castle walls and country-club-like admissions policies. Sadly, however, things are moving in exactly the opposite direction: university administrators in hock to wealthy trustees and state legislators who desire maximum control for minimum financial investment have turned public institutions into de facto private ones by encouraging out-of-state (and international) admissions and doling out “merit-based” financial aid to secure enrollment from desirable admits—the children of the elite, who confer prestige and are certain to be future high-earners, i.e. destined for success in current parlance. Talented in-state students without politically influential parents, meanwhile, are shunted off to other campuses or institutions down the prestige pecking order, where aid policies are less generous and access to professional opportunities less numerous.

Another favorite tactic passed around from one “entrepreneurial” administrator to another and thus handed off from one hollowed-out public university to another is to shift internal “budget models” to reward student majors at the expense of course enrollments. In other words, these administrators fund departments based on the number of students who major in their subject offerings, as opposed to the number of students who enroll in their courses—the latter figure, of course, includes students who may be interested in the subject, but don’t major in it because they are instructed against it by their parents or apprehensive about career prospects, or are prohibited from doing so as a condition of their financial aid or student visa. This approach thus takes advantage of students’ (and parents’) anxiety about career prospects to de-fund units administrators don’t like, while also shifting funding from traditional academic departments, whose prerogative it is to make tenure-track academic appointments, to interstitial ad-hoc programs with trendy “interdisciplinary” names that have no supporting structure, so administrators can hire whom they like on short-term contracts to teach only so long as students enroll.

Public universities are becoming less accessible to low-income students, while elite private universities have not become meaningfully more accessible. Data from Chetty et al (2020).

All of this, plus the fact that the labor market requires ever more educational credentials, feeds the student debt machine. And, notwithstanding the carping of the aforementioned parents in wealthy suburbs, elite private universities have not become meaningfully more egalitarian, while public universities, which at one time really did offer opportunities for social mobility, have increasingly been transformed into country clubs for the children of the well-off. Therein lies higher education’s real threat to social reproduction, if what we are seeking to reproduce is a middle class with access to real higher learning. As with the closing of schools and hospitals in deprived areas, what we are witnessing is the withering and hollowing out of the public estate because rich people and the political class that represents them see no further justification for its existence.

The central problem for those of us hoping to defend higher education is that we can’t just lock arms around actually-existing public institutions—since these institutions have been eroded in all the ways previously mentioned. Consider how the State of Mississippi funneled federal aid to the traditionally-white Mississippi State at the expense of the land-grant HBCU Alcorn State. Or how the “DEI bureaucracy” under siege from state legislatures has, in fact, led bigoted attacks on their institutions’ own students for exercising federally-protected civil rights, in a (futile) bid to prove their utility to their overlords in the legislature and on the board of trustees. Perhaps most damningly, even the higher ed establishment, who long claimed that the rising price and debt associated with enrollment was justified by the fact that a college degree “pays off”—and so discontent was merely the whining of entitled, innumerate youngsters or aggrieved graduates who majored in the wrong subjecthave begun to recognize maybe the existing deal isn’t so square. In fact, their own PR has begun to reference declining public trust in higher education—an outcome of their shoddy policies and false promises—in order to justify their continued dismantling of the institutions they run to the benefit of their political and financial masters, at the expense of their students, faculty, and staff.

A Compelling Vision for Higher Education

Instead, we should take this opportunity to set out a vision for a public higher education system that is worthy of the public’s trust, because it embraces higher ed’s role in reproducing an economically secure middle class constituted in terms of merit, a willingness to contribute one’s labor, achievement obtained during one’s lifetime, and genuine service to the public, rather than privilege and entitlement by birth. That would mean homogeneous institutions with heterogeneous student bodies—the precise opposite of where higher education is going as both students and institutions vie for prestige in our current privatized hell. To conclude this post, let me briefly sketch three specific changes that this would entail.

First, we need institutions that offer low, and crucially uniform, cost of attendance, instead of providing secret discounts to secure favored applicants while the neediest students take on enormous debts relative to their own and their parents’ wealth. Beyond cost, it also requires an ethos of providing meaningful educational opportunities to everyone regardless of background—including by embracing non-traditional students seeking opportunities in higher education as adults that they were unable to make use of directly after high school, even if that education isn’t tied to their career, and even if such students are not the clientele that the country club model of the university has in mind.

Second, we need a federal university system. One central problem with our public universities is that they are engaged in a self-defeating dynamic whereby legislatures look for budget cuts so they can cut taxes for the rich, while university administrators seek permission to raise tuition, proliferate expensive credentializing masters degrees eligible for uncapped federal loans, and recruit out-of-state and international students in return. That shores up university finances while closing off access to state institutions from actual citizens of the state, paving the political way for future budget cuts. Consider how such a beggar-thy-neighbor admissions policy mirrors state and municipal governments vying with one another to offer tax and other incentives for corporations to locate within their boundaries, shifting the tax burden to the less mobile incumbent residents who actually live there. If the federal government exists to do anything, it is to prevent such a downward spiral, and a federal university system with campuses all over the country would do that in a way that funneling more federal money to existing state systems would not. As in the healthcare system, where competition for the “best” patients (those with the most money/most generous insurance and the fewest health needs) creates a hell of institutional segregation, competition in higher ed can either be pro- or anti-social, encouraging separating and sorting, on the one hand, or communal benefit on the other. A constructive higher education system that contributes to social reproduction would allocate all students to homogeneous, high-quality geographically proximate institutions, rather than further divorce notional public universities from the populations they pretend to serve. That would be the mission of a federal university system.

Finally, we need labor standards that demonstrate solidarity not only with the academic underclass, but with all workers employed by the university (not to mention its low-wage contractors), putting our privilege as faculty to work on behalf of those who don’t even get a voice, let alone a say. The bottom line is that it should not be acceptable for college students to be taught by anyone other than tenure-track professors. To the degree that we have invited deprofessionalization by non-tenure-track instructors because it makes our lives as tenure-track faculty cushier, we have played into hostile administrator’s plans by pulling the ladder up behind us and acceding to the token status administrators assign to us, rather than inhabiting the core function of the institution.

“Everyone” “agrees” that higher education is in crisis, but the idea that it should actually serve the public interest is a faint voice in the current cacophony. All the shouting, though, demonstrates the subversive power that control over social reproduction entails, and we should use that power rather than ceding it. This is both terrain worth fighting over and where the battle will be fought, whether we like it or not.